THE STATE : Single-Sex Schools: Why Ruin Good Experiments With Politics

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute

Gov. Pete Wilson wants to allow 10 California school districts to establish all-male and all-female magnet “academies.” This is a reasonable experiment. Single-sex academies will be a dangerous idea only if hyped as a panacea for crises whose roots run deeper than school organization.

In his State of the State address, Wilson claimed that some cities “have found success with all-male classrooms for at-risk boys [because] strong male teachers serve as an alternative to gang leaders.” But it’s too early, and they are too few, to judge them successful, much less solutions to urban violence.

Most experiments are more modest than Wilson’s. Baltimore and the impoverished New Jersey communities of Camden and Irvington (adjoining Newark) have separate boy and girl elementary and middle-school classrooms within mixed buildings, not single-gender schools. Detroit has all-male schools pursuing “Afrocentric” curricula. In Ventura County and districts in New Hampshire and Maine, separate high-school math and science classes are offered to girls, with genders mixed for other subjects. This more focused arrangement is less radical than segregating entire schools.

Wilson’s proposal merges three unrelated pedagogical hypotheses. One is that elementary-school boys from low-income, single-parent homes in African American communities with few successful male role models require tough male-authority figures as teachers. These students need, it’s claimed, an opportunity to cooperate without having to show off to girls, and to learn peer-mediation strategies to prevent them, as adolescents, from having no techniques, save gunfights, for resolving disputes.


The second notion is that middle-school (and increasingly, younger) boys and girls of all social classes are today so inundated by sexual imagery that they attend school not only unprepared to study but incapable of appropriate heterosexual behavior--sexually provocative costuming and aggression of 11-year-olds impede learning. Dress codes are one solution; single-sex classrooms another.

Finally, teenage girls resist competition with boys in math and science and develop intellectual self-confidence more easily if separated. While still controversial, there is more research behind this proposition than the first two. It was widely publicized, for example, when Oakland’s women-only Mills College reversed its decision to go co-ed several years ago.

Pressures for single-gender education, therefore, come from black advocates seeking boys-only elementary classes, feminists (mostly white) seeking girls-only secondary science and math instruction, or teachers and principals demanding salvation from raging middle-school hormones. This mix of motives makes modest experimentation attractive. It also means that inevitable legal challenges (alleging discrimination against the excluded sex) find it more difficult to mobilize coalitions to support lawsuits.

Beware, however, of exaggerated claims. It’s reasonable, for example, to ask that gender-segregated elementary classrooms in inner-city communities not harm girls, but assertions that such classrooms do wonders for them should be mistrusted--that’s not their purpose. Similarly, separate math and science classes should not harm boys, but results showing that boys do better in such settings should inspire skepticism.

Proponents of such experiments are enthusiastic about progress; this should encourage more experimentation, not crusades. At Baltimore’s Coleman Elementary School, test scores jumped when genders were first separated, but then scores fell. Undaunted, the principal attributed reversals to many untrained teachers who joined Coleman’s faculty that year. She may be correct, but that’s why researchers need evidence from elsewhere to sift extraneous factors before forming conclusions about gender segregation alone. Detroit’s Malcolm X Academy for boys also claims success. But the academy also got funds for smaller classes, leaving open the possibility that male environment alone was not responsible for the improvements.

Assessing results of education experiments is always tricky. If Wilson’s single-sex magnets are established, enrollees will undoubtedly perform better than others from comparable backgrounds. That’s because even if families are equal in other respects, those applying to magnets are likely more involved in their children’s education (and more likely to provide intangible support) than families whose children attend “default” neighborhood schools. The only way to show single-sex magnets producing better outcomes is to ensure that seats are limited, and then compare, over several years, achievement of enrolled students to that of demographically similar students who applied, but were not accepted because of space limitations.

Because there is yet no data on the effects of single-sex public schools, advocates of boys-only primary schools in violent communities rely on research by Rhode Island professor Cornelius Riordan. He showed that black and Latino boys do better in male Catholic high schools with mostly male faculties than do demographically matched boys in mixed-gender Catholic schools. Boys in single-sex schools had better test scores, were more likely to take academic courses and felt greater control over their environments. But in Riordan’s sample, tuitions at boys’ schools were nearly 20% higher than at co-ed schools. This may or may not have been significant. In both all-boys and co-ed schools, teachers were more than 80% white, providing no evidence for African American role-model theories on which many advocates rely. And Riordan studied high schools, while most public single-sex experimentation has been for younger children.

These experiments should continue. They will be disturbing only if advocates believe minority boys’ fatalism and lack of academic ambition stem from faulty pedagogy, not reality. Increasingly today, inner-city youth who succeed in school find deteriorated labor-market opportunities. High school graduation rates and test scores of black males improved consistently over the last 15 years, while average wages of graduates plummeted.


The policy of Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve Board maintains, as a hedge against possible inflation, a permanent corps of 5% to 6% unemployed. This, of course, is an average. It includes less than 6% unemployment for white college graduates and more than 20% unemployment for black high-school graduates. What if Wilson’s “strong male teachers” as “alternatives to gang leaders” were to become widespread, and single-sex schools inspired boys to, as Wilson declared, “escape a life on the streets?” The Fed may feel obligated to raise interest rates to slow the economy, thereby keeping them on the streets and guaranteeing pedagogical reform no lasting effect.

The best role models for young black and Latino boys are not male teachers, but older brothers who can find decent jobs when they graduate. School reform shouldn’t wait for economic change, but until it happens, reform could spin its wheels.*